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The power of 'No'

By Sunity Maharaj

The absence of calm that so defined 2012 is likely to intensify throughout 2013. With two local government elections in the offing over the coming months, anxious politicos would like to settle the general election of 2015 quick-quick by getting both in the bag as a done deal.

Possession being nine-tenths of elections, too, the assumption here is that control of the Tobago House of Assembly and Trinidad's regional corporations would provide a strong enough platform for mounting a one-way ladder to central government in 2015.

Not so fast, though. Given life's propensity for mocking safe bets and unnerving complacency, the smarter money would avoid electoral forecasting until 2015.

At this stage, the only safe bet is a bad hangover from 2012 exacerbated by the intense anxiety that comes from deep political insecurity.

But none of this should be taken as bad news for us.

We enter 2013 more confident than ever in the knowledge thatfor all our trespasses, wild temptations and preference for contained anarchy, we continue to break free of the old order of central power. On this path to building our new world, we are revelling, like babies, in the self-asserting freedom to say "No!"

Like so many of history's oppressed, this is our act of liberation.

For us, "yes" is a self-flagellating, self-denying submission to authority.

We are yet to discover the self-affirming power of "Yes!" whose secrets lie far beyond the horizon of the old culture still nipping at our heels.

We're not yet there, but we are on our way.

Knowing what we don't want is half-way up the road to knowing what we do want.

In the frictious babel of noise, kicked up with the dust of dissent, we can, if we listen closely, cut through to the clear, clean frequency of freedom to find clues about ourselves and this moment.

Of course, the Jamaica Observer's charge of "ethnic stocking" by the People's Partnership Government was ridiculously facile and steeped in ignorance about the complexity of T&T politics.

But if we don't understand ourselves and our politics, what can we expect of Jamaicans?

Indeed, our record, above all the record of the People's Partnership Government, suggests that we understand very little about Jamaica and the rest of the region. Knowing Bob Marley's music alone just doesn't cut it.

For this reason, the Jamaica Observer's editorial offers the perfect opening for a conversation between us. Here's the chance for The University of the West Indies, or some such agency of regional enlightenment, to step forward and embrace the opportunity for analysing the politics of the region, which remains an area of darkness for everybody from prime minister down.

Instead, when it matters most to public understanding, UWI seems distracted by politics of its own.

Properly explored, even the People's Partnership might be helped by analysis and understanding of its self-destructive behaviour in office. There are clear historical reasons why parties in opposition to the PNM have been so dysfunctional in government that none has been given a clear second term by the electorate.

Invariably, what derails them are the deep scars of opposition insecurity, anxiety and institutional weakness which, together, conspire to render them under-prepared for office. Government being the going concern that it is, by the time a party gets into office, it is too late to plug gaps and eliminate deficiencies.

This is not an experience with which the People's National Movement (PNM) is familiar.

Like the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) and the People's Partnership, the PNM came to office within months of being launched but the circumstances of history and society allowed it to take root in office and grow a political party. Over the course of thirty uninterrupted years of state power (1956-86), the PNM was protected from the vagaries of opposition life. Access to state resources served to organise and structure the political movement, keeping it in line and making it cohere. Its interludes in opposition since 1986 have not been enduring enough to force the PNM into the brutal wilderness of opposition politics. Nor, given the changing shape of the political landscape, is it likely to.

The era of two monolithic parties is over, even if primal calls still ricochet in the echo chamber of ethnic politics.It is only fear of the unknown that keeps us tied to the ghosts of old when life and logic tell us otherwise.

Our politicians are the greatest victims of this fear. Too scared to risk losing, they end up losing it all, including themselves.

Having come to office wracked by the insecurity of a paper partnership based on little more than transactional considerations, the People's Partnership has been fighting the 2015 elections since 2010. It is the single end that has justified every means. In the obsession with ticking off achievements for platform 2015, the People's Partnership has sacrificed the more nuanced process of government with the people.

The result is an irony so odd that it borders on resentment of the government's delivery programme. It is as if the more ribbons are cut and milestones covered, the angrier the people get. In responding to this phenomenon, the People's Partnership should reconsider its hypothesis that it is all a PNM plot. It gives the PNM too much credit for what might simply be a people's instinct that the People's Partnership motive is not about Government, but about staying in Government. And that is a world of the difference for people with an unfulfilled longing for a place in government.

We arrive at 2013 at an intriguing conjuncture, then. In all that we say and do, we demonstrate our recognition that the old politics is dead. But with the new still nothing more than a slogan, unformed, unknown and untrusted, we keep moving history along by the compromise of voting "yes" and saying "no". For a good while now, this is how we have been managing power and keeping it in check while we feel our way to the future. Keeping governments insecure might be a deliberate act of self-defence.

In plotting our path through the election frenzy of the coming months,it would serve us better to keep a hawk's eye on the future and not be dragged into every distraction of the present.

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